A bullpen that experienced more hiccups over the weekend wasn’t going to choke away a lead yesterday and subject the Orioles to a sweep.
The use of rookie Bruce Zimmermann in a bulk role was rewarded in a big way with 5 2/3 sparkling innings. He was the first in a succession of southpaws, the baton passed to left hands.
Manager Brandon Hyde knows who’s available for every game, though he won’t necessarily share it with the public. He tries to piece together nine innings when starters fail their assignments or an opener is used, which happened yesterday with Adam Plutko, who didn’t make it beyond the first.
Hyde also puts his trust in a collection of relievers who mostly have been rejected in some form by other organizations. Or, with César Valdez, the entire league.
The Orioles selected Tanner Scott in the sixth round of the 2014 draft. He’s an exception, targeted by the previous regime as an amateur and developed in the system.
The Indians traded Plutko on March 27 for cash considerations. Zimmermann, who covered for him yesterday, was deemed expendable by the Braves and packaged in the Kevin Gausman/Darren O’Day trade.
Jorge López received another vote of confidence from Hyde yesterday, but he’s vulnerable to a change in roles. The Orioles claimed him off waivers from the Royals last August.
Valdez was signed out of the Mexican League, bypassed by every other team and shut out of the majors since 2017.
Dillon Tate, trusted more in high-leverage situations but still developing, is on the injured list with a strained hamstring. He’s a former first-round pick who’s been traded twice. Mac Sceroler, on the injured list with right shoulder tendinitis, was left exposed by the Reds in the Rule 5 draft and didn’t pitch above Single-A.
Jay Flaa and Isaac Mattson made their major league debuts. Mattson is back at Triple-A Norfolk. Flaa was designated for assignment and claimed by the Braves.
Hunter Harvey is a first-round pick who’s on the injured list again with an oblique strain and must be handled carefully upon his return, which could come in early June.
The Orioles don’t rally past the Yankees yesterday after falling behind 4-0 without the bullpen allowing only two runs in eight innings. Aaron Judge homered off Zimmermann, which just bonds the Ellicott City resident to his teammates, and Valdez surrendered a two-out RBI single to DJ LeMahieu in the ninth, but also struck out two batters.
The bullpen ERA is down to 3.50, fourth in the American League and sixth in the majors. The 1.19 WHIP is fourth in the league and seventh in the majors.
Connoisseurs of the hold stat should know that the Orioles rank fourth in the league and 10th in the majors with 23.
Pitching coach Chris Holt and assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes deserve bulk credit, but there’s also a manager working hard to find the most advantageous spots, maneuver around pitching slumps and avoid excessive use. Hands are tied on occasion while signaling to his bullpen.
Hyde can’t thrust his Rule 5 guys into tense situations unless given little or no choice. Armstrong has let nine of 11 inherited runners cross the plate, but Hyde gave him a clean inning Saturday and the right-hander tossed two scoreless innings. Lakins didn’t allow an earned run in eight April innings, but has a 12.46 ERA this month in 4 1/3. Sulser is averaging 1.4 walks per nine innings, compared to 6.8 last summer, but has allowed runs in his last two appearances.
Left-handers are 1-for-19 against Sulser this season, but his reverse splits have right-handers 9-for-29.
Fry had a miserable spring training coming off a career year and many fans screamed for him to be optioned or left on another team’s doorstep. Hyde didn’t waver in his trust, defending Fry at every opportunity, and the lefty has a 1.17 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and .173 average against in 17 appearances. He’s struck out 22 batters in 15 1/3 innings, including Gary Sánchez yesterday to end the eighth after inducing a double play from Gio Urshela and bailing out Scott.
Hyde did the same campaigning for Scott after he walked three batters in back-to-back appearances in April and the media questioned whether the lefty could remain in high-leverage situations. Scott hasn’t been charged with a run in nine of his last 10 outings and 12 of 14.
Hyde was asked Saturday about the importance and difficulties of bullpen management.
“It depends on the bullpen you have,” he replied.
Excellent start to his answer. You think it might be a little less challenging with a collection of All-Stars and expensive free agents?
“When the bullpen’s having success, it’s a lot easier,” Hyde continued, “and when guys are a little bit inconsistent, which has been ... Two years ago I’d put a guy in and had no idea what to expect a lot of times, and there are some guys who have improved. Paul Fry’s really improved, Tanner Scott’s really improved. We got Lakins off waivers, we got Cole Sulser off waivers, we got Valdez, who’s been in a lot of places. Armey was on waivers. So we’ve had some guys with different experiences and not really put in situations that they’re having to pitch in in late innings against American League East clubs, and so you want guys to learn from those and show confidence in them and believe in them.
“It’s not easy, and these guys, I feel like, have done a pretty good job up to this point. They did a fairly good job last year, and up until, really, six days ago they’ve been pretty lights-out.”
They got back to it yesterday.
Hyde made it clear that Scott and Fry are going to keep plunging into hot water. He needs them to get important outs. He won’t be a prisoner to matchups.
“Tanner and Fry, for me, are two guys that I’m going to push to face middle of the orders. They’re going to pitch late in the game, right or left,” he said.
“I really believe in their stuff. I think Paul Fry has really turned the corner in his career, on what it takes to be a real solid bullpen piece. I think Tanner is still developing a little bit, and we’re going to trust him and trust the development there, and we love his arm.”